Songs by Edvard Grieg – Katarina Karnéus & Julius Drake

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Grieg
Sex digte af Henrik Ibsen, Op.25
Sechs Lieder, Op.48
Haugtussa, Op.67
Hjertets melodier, Op.5
Prinsessen

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)

Recorded 10-12 December 2007 in All Saints Church, East Finchley, London


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: September 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA67670
Duration: 68 minutes

The public reputation and status accorded to winners of the “BBC Cardiff Singer of the World” competition is durable but historically does not immediately provide a head-start to an international career. Nor does it lead to a rapid avalanche of recordings. Katarina Karnéus is a not untypical example of this phenomenon. She won the competition in 1995 but her recording career has been rather slow to take off. Her EMI recital was not released until 1999 and further recordings have been surprisingly limited: lyric mezzos are hardly at a premium.

A projected complete set of Grieg songs was initiated as long ago as 1993 on BIS, but its issues have only been trickling out. They employ a single singer, the Finnish-Swedish mezzo Monica Groop; she was coincidentally a contestant in the 1989 Cardiff Competition. Hyperion is not in direct competition for this is a self-contained collection and not a random selection; it is a well-planned recital.

The centrepiece of the programme is the “Haugtussa” (The Mountain Maid) cycle, already recorded by a number of distinguished Scandinavian mezzos. Karnéus yields to none of them in vocal accomplishment, indeed the tessitura fits her vocal figure ideally. In the opening song ‘Det syng’ she is comfortably at home in the contralto register that Grieg has used to embody the grave utterances which begin each stanza, yet able effortlessly to float a higher line for the reassurance which follows each time.

< The variety of style and expression in the cycle comes across gratifyingly. With the boiling-down of Garborg’s seventy-one poems to eight, Grieg had to strictly condense Veslemøy’s story. He successfully constructed a coherent narrative, setting the scene, introducing the character of his central figure, relating the course of her relationship with Jon and hinting at her submission to the spirit-world in the final song, even finding room for humour and frivolity on the way. Karnéus and Drake never leave any doubt of the continuity of the cycle. They also bring out similarities with other song-composers: the lively volatility of some of Richard Strauss’s lighter songs in ‘Blåbær-li’, the resemblance to “Die schöne Müllerin” in Veslemøy’s dialogue with the stream in the last song ‘Ved Gjoetle-bekken’, even a pre-echo of Mahler’s demotic style in ‘Killingdans’. However, Grieg’s individuality is always present. This is a searching performance, which promises to yield more with each further hearing. The Ibsen poems whose settings comprise Grieg’s Opus 25 are generally gloomy and are often associated with an unhappy period of Grieg’s family life. They include the well-known ‘En svane’ and ‘Med en vandlilje’. The latter is an exception to the prevailing tone, being animated, with the piano doubling the voice in its generally ebullient motion. Karnéus can produce the necessary eagerness of manner. In ‘En svane’ mellowness of tone in the lyrical outer sections is supplied alongside powerful declamation in the central passage. A similar pyramid structure applies in ‘Stambogsrim’. The singer’s richness of tone is never vitiated by strain at the top, even in the loud, intense writing. The six songs to German texts are heterogeneous and markedly different from the melancholy ethos of the Ibsen settings. Heine is represented by the exuberant, lightweight ‘Gruss’, in which Karnéus shows her ability to swell her tone smoothly from piano to forte and back. A complete contrast is provided by Emanuel Geibel’s solemn ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’, in which the singer inhabits the alto register and the words are heavy with meaning. Then the whimsical ‘Lauf der Welt’, with its playful trotting rhythm, piano-doubling of the melody and knowing pointing of the words by the singer, immediately set off by a mediaeval lyric of courtly love by Walther von der Vogelweide, into which Grieg inserts archaic decorations. Goethe’s ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ is given quasi-Wolfian treatment, with an independent piano part, unconventional intervals and weighty chord progressions, while the vocal line goes very low.

The Opus 5 songs (Melodies from the Heart) are really miniatures, reflective of Grieg’s happiness at his burgeoning relationship with his future wife, light but not slight. While Grieg’s harmonic language has yet to develop, the individual cut of his melodies can already be detected. The inevitable ‘Jeg elsker Dig’ receives an understated performance, without the inauthentic second verse.

Collaborating with Julius Drake can do nothing but amplify a fine artist’s output both in the recital room and in a recording. He is a sovereign accompanist and an incredibly industrious one. I seem to encounter him everywhere when asked to review concerts and recordings, covering a wide range of the song repertoire.

Hyperion previously showed typical judgement and enterprise in including Karnéus in its admirable song series with an issue of Sibelius songs. This recital suggests that the slow maturing process has paid off: the Karnéus of today has a voice of wide range, secure tone and confident delivery – she is a musician with searching interpretative skills.

The recording seems a fraction less forward than others from this venue, which is by no means to its detriment. Texts and translations are provided in the booklet.

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